While reading the “Oxford Handbook of Skepticism,” a very interesting distinction was pointed out to me. A distinction which is very obvious yet elusive precisely because of its obviousness.
A philosophy can be a way of life, or it can be a system of thought. We can view something like hedonism as a guide to life, where we pursue pleasure at every opportunity because hedonism dictates so. Which would mean hedonism is a way of life for us. Or, we can take hedonism into the realm of ethical justification, where we debate whether hedonism truly inspires our morals or not.
So a philosophy can be a way of life, yet also a lifeless series of abstractions. Which brings us to the idea behind this essay. Skepticism as a way of life.
Skepticism is much more well known as an abstract system of beliefs, or lack thereof. A skeptic is someone who doubts claims or denies the possibility of knowledge. But very rarely do we think of skepticism as a way of life, at least in modern times. Which is something I want to explore herein.
But before we do that, let’s first make yet another distinction.
Skepticism as a way of life can be broken down into further detail; that is, we can say that there is a general way of life for a skeptic, and then there are specific ways of life for each type of specific skeptic. For example, life in general for a skeptic might be filled with more doubts than claims, more concerns than not. Yet life for a Humean skeptic, being different from life for a skeptic in general, will be filled with doubts only as they relate to studies and reading.
Skeptics have commonalities across their lives, but at the same time, vary in the specifics of their lives, as is the case with a skeptic in general and a Humean skeptic. It is this distinction which we will explore further below, to see the many ways of life for skeptics.
Skepticism as a Way of Life in General
I have reflected and arrived at the following generalities common across all skeptics, though I am sure there are more:
- Deliberate subjugation
- Willingness to hear claims, and an unwillingness to accept claims
- Cognitively engaged
- Selective Bias
- Not a fan favorite
Firstly, what is meant by deliberate subjugation is somewhat strange. (I explain this more in my book: Knowing Nothing). The phrase refers to the authority of truth.
When we accept something as being true, we are to hold it as an authority. For example, when we say, “It is true that my apple is red,” we are also saying, “it could not be otherwise,” or, “it is indisputable that my apple is red”. It is just unfathomable, not possible, or nonsensical for it to be otherwise. Might I add here, if you have not noticed, defining truth is quite the task!
Anyways, when we claim something as true, we are clearly bound to, or confined to, or restricted to whatever that truth is. Like an absolute ruler presiding over the nation of reason, truth discards with any alternative.
And it is for that reason that I think the skeptic, in general, deliberately chooses their master; they do not accept all as truth, but only a select few as truth. Rather than be subjugated by the first commonly accepted notion, they instead reason for themselves and arrive at a master of their own picking.
Secondly, a willingness to hear claims and an unwillingness to accept claims. These are likewise common traits for skeptics.
Skeptics are on average more willing to hear a claim because they have not yet some absolute leader silencing dissident voices within their heads. The authoritarian notion of truth has not implanted itself in every facet of their belief system, yet. They are far more willing to hear a claim, so that they may either doubt it, or so that they may be provided reason to doubt some commonly accepted truth. So, their eagerness to doubt leads to a willingness to hear claims.
In addition to that, skeptics are not people who have simply given up the pursuit of knowledge, but are instead those who have a different set of justifications for knowledge. And since they are skeptics, they will more than likely be in pursuit of beliefs due to the lack of their own beliefs; which makes them all the more willing to hear the claims of others.
Yet for all this open-mindedness, a seemingly never ending close-mindedness is characteristic of a skeptic. Of course, skeptics are not genuinely close-minded, but they do appear that way.
Skeptics are, due to their demand for greater persuasiveness, far more likely to reject a claim, even after listening to the arguments in favor of said claim. It would be a strange state of affairs if, after all, skeptics were the ones who were far more likely to accept claims, on average.
Thirdly, skeptics are seemingly more mentally engaged with what is being said, when compared to others. If we were to imagine, for example, a crowd of people speaking about the news, most of them would be sharing what they have heard and read without much concern for the facts and evidence surrounding the stories. Usually that is because people talk about events as a way to simply talk, not to adopt fundamental truths about the world.
But a skeptic would not be much of a skeptic if they thought in precisely that manner. It is, by definition, in the nature of a skeptic to be astute on matters of evidence and justification, usually as a matter of habit: as a way of life.
Fourthly, skeptics, I presume, are as much human as the rest of us. And since skeptics have given to themselves the choice of accepting or rejecting claims which either fit or do not fit their standards of justification, it seems quite likely that skeptics in general have a selective bias.
By setting standards of evidence one way rather than another, a skeptic could very well ensure some claims are defensible while others are not. As a terrific example, religious skeptics, those who are skeptical of religion, often reject appeals to the bible as evidence, and thus make a more favorable position out of their skeptical attitudes.
A similar yet different phenomenon happens in law, where otherwise incriminating evidence cannot be submitted before a court due to its capacity to prejudice the character of a defendant. Which means, those who set standards of evidence can indeed make the standards favor one type of evidence over another: a selective bias.
Lastly, and fifthly, skeptics are generally not a fan favorite. The most common reason for this is because people do not like to be questioned; in fact, in many cultures questioning someone is viewed as incredibly rude. In Japan, to question an elder is offensive, and in America it is a social no-no to doubt what someone is saying to you, unless you are willing to be perceived as rude.
But there is another reason, and that is skepticism likely attracts those who prefer to be disagreeable or argumentative, those who are perhaps not the platonic ideal of sociable people. So, life as a skeptic would obviously entail some social discomfort.
Thus, when someone adopts skepticism as a way of life, they clearly adopt a set of pros and cons as well. They have greater freedoms in some respects, but also lose social status; they are more willing to hear a claim, but are likewise less likely to accept the claim. These appear to be the essential components of what life as a skeptic appears to be.
Life as a Skeptic in Specific
Life as a skeptic in specific can be different from life as a skeptic in general. And these differences range from minor to important. To start, let us consider a skeptic in the Humean sense.
Hume famously rejected skepticism in his ordinary life because it seemed entirely unreasonable to be a skeptic in regular life. When he was playing backgammon or socializing, very little attention was given to doubting the claims made by his friends. Which is a fair point, I believe. I could not fathom doubting a historical claim made by a friend when they say, “I used to eat these when I was a child”. Doing that seems a bit absurd indeed.
As a result, a Humean skeptic might instead save their skepticism for claims of science and philosophy, and decide only to be a skeptic in books, papers, and debates.
Comparatively, a skeptic of other minds might attach no value to social life and thus have an entirely different view than a Humean skeptic. Someone who doubts the existence of other minds would likely fail to hold the distinction Hume did since there isn’t any way to know that a genuine distinction can be made between the claims put forth by a book and claims put forth by an alleged person. Both are claims made by something uncertainness.
And even furthermore, a Phyrrorian skeptic might avoid arguments entirely; only because they doubt that knowledge can be certain in general. Rather than waste time debating ideas which cannot be known with certainty, they might instead focus entirely on taking action rather than knowing things.
The general point being, the way in which we carry out our skepticism can impact our life. Skeptics who adopt their skepticism as a way of life, rather than just viewing the concepts as a bodiless set of abstractions, will change their behaviors accordingly. And although there are general trends for skeptics, the trends might look different depending on the specific type of skepticism we adopt.
In conclusion, if we choose to take skepticism as a way of life, then we cannot only think about the general notion of skepticism, but must also consider the specific notion of skepticism we are going to take as a way of life. Not all skepticisms are the same, despite general trends.